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Classic Cinemas founder Willis Johnson dies at 86


“Old theaters in the city center had fallen out of favor,” his son, Chris Johnson, recalled Friday, when Willis Johnson entered the movie business. The mall was king, and shoebox multiplexes with zero architectural difference were very common.

Chris always thought of his father’s middle name, Gamble. suitable for the film exhibition trade perfectly.

But the gamble worked. Thick and thin, and sometimes—to borrow an old Mel Brooks line—thin, old Johnson’s tenacity and dedication to his hometown of Downers Grove led to the expansion of the now 16-location regional theater chain known as Classic Cinemas. 137 screens in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Willis Gamble Johnson died on August 16 at the age of 86, and Classic Cinemas announced his death on social media.

“He was one of the best guys in the business,” said his friend and fellow suburban theater owner Dino Vlahakis. Park Ridge Pickwick Theater. “He was a true entertainer, a hard worker, and one of the sweetest, best guys I’ve ever met in the business. Always honest. So does his son, Chris.”

Chris Johnson now serves as CEO of Classic Cinemas, a division of the Johnson family business, Tivoli Enterprises, Inc. He is also the Illinois president of the National Theater Owners Association. He started out as a bailiff working for his father at the 1928 Downers Grove landmark Tivoli Theatre.

Now a beautifully restored 1,000-seat venue is now doing hay with “Barbie,” and the lobby is recently accompanied by a boutique auditorium named after her father: The Willis Theatre. Tivoli paid tribute to his tent earlier this week.

“He was a relentless volunteer,” Chris said. “She volunteers for anything. A tough personality in some ways, no nonsense. Incredible passion for details. We are always trying to make the city centers where we have our cinemas better for everyone.”

Johnson was Downers Grove Citizen of the Year in 2010; in the Elmhurst Civic Hall of Fame; Earlier this year, he and his wife, 46, Shirley Johnson, were named Downers Grove historians of the year. (His first marriage ended in divorce in the early 1970s.)

Johnson is survived by his wife, Shirley; their children Stephen, Kay, Chris, Wendy and Amy; step-children Mary and Richard; 14 grandchildren; and great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

And countless friends.

“He always reached out to help people,” Chris Johnson recalled. “A lot of people would tell me stories: ‘Your father bought me glasses.’ Or, “Your father paid me to get my teeth done.” Many stories like this. In fact, he hadn’t told anyone about it. He was just interested.”

Johnson was born in January 1937 and grew up in a Sears catalog house at 4812 Bryan Place in Downers Grove, three blocks from Tivoli. He graduated from Downers Grove Community High School in 1955 and then Western Michigan University in 1959. He served as a sergeant in the US Army National Guard, then worked as a time-study engineer for International Harvester, one of 26.

In the 2022 documentary “History Happens Here,” produced by the Downers Grove Historical Society, Johnson says he was laid off. From there he founded Johnson Printers with his brother Ross and eventually founded Classic Cinemas/Tivoli Enterprises, Inc.

Willis and Shirley Johnson at the Willis & Shirley Johnson and Classical Cinema Research and Education Center in Elmhurst on January 20, 2014.

Owning a movie theater is not for the faint of heart. The pandemic has taken a heavy toll. Films originally scheduled for release in the fall of 2023 may eventually be delayed until 2024, as studios and publishers are currently at odds over contract negotiations with writers and film actor guilds, leaving exhibitors in a tight spot for new titles to bring back audiences. .

But Willis Johnson saw the ups and downs and everything in between in his heyday. In 1976, he and his brother Ross took over Tivoli, along with the hotel, bowling alley, and storefronts in the same corner complex in Highland and Warren. They took over because he was the tenant of the theater, Chicago-based Oscar BrotmanThe one who died in 1994 slapped the “closed for renovations” sign on the marquee, and as Johnson said in the documentary, Brotman skipped the lease.

So Johnson got into the theater business. Over the years as the operator and renovator of theaters in Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Oak Park, La Grange, and other cities, he believed primarily in “the concept of supporting communities and volunteering.” And it gives,” said his son, Chris Johnson.

And the last movie his father saw? Chris Johnson knows the date and the title: May 2, 2023. The film was “History Happens Here”, a domestic documentary about the history of the Tivoli Theater in 1928, which was advertised as the “Chicago Suburbs Wonderful Theatre”.

The movie is about Tivoli, but it’s actually about Willis Johnson. And that show in May?

“We sold every seat,” Chris says.

A memorial service is scheduled for September 2 at 10:30 am at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.


twitter @phillipstribune


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